Swag to Sway Employees

by Christina Baris | 10/10/18 2:15am

This summer, I traded my bathing suits and flip flops for business casual blazers and flats. Late nights filled with Netflix binge-watching soon turned into early mornings packed with coffee, subway stops, crowded New York streets and even more coffee. Internship season had officially started, and I struggled to adjust to the fast-paced city lifestyle. Although my quiet, suburban hometown was located only 45 miles north of the Manhattan metropolis, it felt like the two places were in separate worlds. 

After one week, my daily routine had solidified, I had memorized the train schedules and New York’s famous grid system was etched in my mind. Yet the workplace was still a foreign concept to me, and I was still very much an outsider. However, at the end of the week, I went to my desk to find a bag full of free swag. This bag contained everything from t-shirts to backscratchers, all marked with the company’s name and logo. While this action may ostensibly seem like a small gesture, I quickly began to feel integrated into the work community. 

The swag served to unify all the workers in the office, providing a welcoming atmosphere. Eddie Ma ’22 shares a similar experience; he notes that wearing swag from a particular company is “like being part of a sports team.” Swag displays an appreciation for the company and strengthens the sense of community within the office. 

Even when my internship ended, my fast-paced summer continued. Preparing for the start of college came with a seemingly never-ending to-do list. My internship felt like a distant memory, with more aspects becoming forgotten each day. However, it was then that I realized that swag does much more than unify workers of a particular community. For me, swag is a way in which the company, and the experiences with the company, are kept fresh in my mind. Every time I put on the t-shirt from my swag bag, I am reminded of my internship. For a minute, I am transported back to the 8th Avenue office; I can picture the eerie, fluorescent elevator lighting, hear the clicking of heeled shoes on tile floors and taste the lattes from the espresso bar that I frequented during lunch breaks. A memory — and company — that could have easily been forgotten is now continuously kept relevant. 

Ma also adds that his swag is reminiscent of the good memories he has of his internship. 

“[It] reminds you of the family you made there,” he said.

Companies recognize this high value of free swag. In fact, free swag is rarely truly free. Whenever a company gives away something for free, they get something in return. In marketing and psychology, this concept is known as reciprocity — responding to a positive action with another positive action. Free swag is usually a positive action that should cause the recipient to positively recall their experience with the company; however, this is not always the case. 

Although Austin Zhang ’22 had a “mostly positive experience” at his summer internship this year, he associates the free swag he was given with mainly negative memories. This is due to the fact that Zhang associates the swag with the manual labor he was completing while wearing the items he received. Additionally, Zhang notes that he does not frequently use these items.

“[The t-shirts were] very uncomfortable … I haven’t worn them since,” he said.

Zhang’s experience suggests that in order for free swag to successfully elicit a positive response from the recipient, the swag must be something practical or exciting. 

“Maybe if they gave me a Patagonia jacket, I’d wear it daily,” Zhang said.

In addition to internships, free swag is also an important aspect of career fairs. Katie Goldstein ’20 recently attended the Grace Hopper Conference for Women in Computing and described that the  important difference between swag at internships and career fair is the “element of choice.” 

During internships interns are usually given free swag from the particular company for which they are interning. However, at career fairs, individuals make a conscious decision to take certain swag from certain brands. At career fairs, brands must be strategic about the specific type of swag they give out. These fairs are often full of brands trying to recruit future employees; in order to be successful, companies must stand out. Swag can be used to draw the attention of future employees, to ensure that the brand is remembered and to differentiate themselves from the other brands present. There are many factors that contribute to the success of a particular piece of free swag. One factor is portability.

“You only have so much suitcase space,” Goldstein said.

Many people may avoid picking up items that are particularly bulky due to their inconvenience, whereas smaller items are more practical. One example of a brand at the Grace Hopper Conference that used portability to their advantage is Estee Lauder. This brand gave out lipstick, which is an item that is unique and portable.

Another aspect for brands to consider is practicality. Items that can be used in a variety of ways tend to be more sought after and are therefore effective at engaging potential employees.

One of the main functions of swag is its ability to bring people to the booth. Swag is often the catalyst for conversation — people may visit the booth of a brand solely because of its free swag but then end up engaging in meaningful conversation. Swag also functions to increase one’s excitement. For example, Antonio Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis, which theorizes that our decisions are influenced by our emotions, may explain why exciting swag can be used to entice potential employees. An exciting, positive experience at a career fair can lead to a positive emotional association to the swag and the brand.

It is easy to overlook the importance of swag. Many times, free items are shoved in the back of closets or drawers, where they are left to collect dust. Yet after investigating the rationale behind free swag at internships and career fairs, it is evident that swag serves a clear and defined purpose. So next time you clean out your closet, take a minute to unfold that t-shirt that has been cramped in the corner — it might lead you to an exciting, unexpected destination.